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Opinion
We need a revolution

The industry is facing a staffing crisis and in a heartfelt plea to designers, Margreet Papamichael asks for radical solutions


The staffing crisis is a burning issue for our industry. Many parks are finding it difficult to staff up to the required level while using the flexible hourly model that’s traditionally been used and that allows operators to keep labour costs as low as possible. This issue has become so urgent that at times it has led to closures of attractions and F&B outlets.

I believe designers in our industry – including engineers and technologists – should lead the revolution to help us out of this painful problem.

Our industry needs to radically rethink design by modifying the design process so it starts by ensuring very little to no people power is required unless it significantly benefits the guest experience through amazing customer interaction.

I don’t know exactly what this might look like, but I’d love to find out. What I’m saying is – we need designers of all kinds to help us design attractions that are cheaper to operate by reducing the number of staff needed to do so.

BACKGROUND: Why are we in this situation?

1. Ageing population
A couple of macro trends have landed us here. We’re all aware of the fact that the populations in Western Europe and the US are ageing. Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are now aged between 58 and 76. With the average retirement age in the EU at 64.3 years for men and 63.5 years for women (slightly lower in the US), this group is slowly withdrawing from the working population.

The population group of 20- to 64-year-olds is set to reduce significantly over time, mainly caused by a steadily declining birth rate post WW2. This trend will only becoming more visible and immediate.

2. More time in education
Not only is the working population shrinking through ageing and a lower birth rate, children are also spending more time in education. The expectation is for this global trend to continue and to have an even greater impact in the future.

This means that over time, a larger proportion of people is entering the workforce at a later age, thereby ‘shrinking’ the available workforce further. This puts specific pressure on the number of young people entering the workforce, who often do so at entry level wages and with more flexible work hours – the people we often need to meet our seasonal staffing requirements.

Furthermore, people entering the workforce with a higher level of qualification look for secure employment that values those qualifications, thereby increasing salary expectations and expectations around meaningful, full-time, year-round work.

3. Fewer older workers
As we came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of talk about a decrease in older workers in the workforce. Data for this is hard to source, but the OECD provides data on employment rate by age group for 55-64 year olds. Data from five countries shows that the long-term trend prior to the pandemic was generally an increase in participation in the workforce of this age group, although it started to slide in the US prior to the pandemic.

The effect of the pandemic is clear to see in the US, where participation among this age group dropped dramatically. A downward effect was measured for all countries albeit to a lesser degree. Interestingly, of the five countries, only the UK is still significantly below pre-pandemic levels. The US is still slightly lower than pre-pandemic levels; having experienced the sharpest drop, it stands to reason that recovery of this may take longer in the US but it seems to be coming back to that pre-pandemic level.

In short, although the employment rate of older workers may have been impacted by the pandemic, it seems largely either to have recovered or to be still recovering. Perhaps other factors than the pandemic are also influencing the dip in employment rate for the UK?

4. The Great Resignation… or is it? 
There was much talk during and towards the end of the pandemic about a phenomenon dubbed the Great Resignation. Data on this is hard to find as most of the information seemed to come from informal surveys and most countries measure numbers of job vacancies rather than numbers of resignations.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does measure resignations, and Statista sourced figures on this. From 2001 they found that when there’s a recession, fewer people quit their job – no surprise there. The findings also show the impact of the pandemic in September 2021 when resignations dropped tremendously. The sharp uptake following that, in my opinion, doesn’t represent a new trend but rather a trend that has been rising since around 2009. This prompts two questions: What is causing the phenomenon, and what if another recession follows?

Causes include people retiring early taking advantage of relatively high real estate values in the US and a relatively upbeat stock market – this group was seen to ‘cash in’ and downsize. Taking that as read, this would logically be a blip in the statistics and will fade away over time.

Other workers cited a general discontent with their jobs, which has led to what’s been dubbed the Great Reshuffle – the phenomenon of an increase in people changing jobs that’s been seen widely throughout Western Europe and the US. Respondents to various surveys give a number of reasons for changing jobs, including low pay, job insecurity, a desire for a better work/life balance, better benefits and the wish for more meaningful work.

Many also found that working from home during the pandemic suited them better and have gone in search of jobs that allow this workstyle. This has obvious implications for the attractions industry – in the words of Ida Troive, HR director for Parks & Resorts Scandinavia, “You can’t serve candy floss from your home office.”

With the increase in vacancies offering very flexible options, many of these considerations that are encouraging people to change jobs are likely to stay.

What if another recession follows? A recession would likely dampen the trends mentioned but, given the more flexible job options that now exist, they’re unlikely to go away. That means that at the end of a (hopefully hypothetical) recession, these trends will reappear in redoubled strength.

What this means for the attractions industry
For the themed entertainment industry, these trends may have more of an impact than in other industries. Data from the US suggests that industries relying on low skilled customer-facing staff have higher attrition rates than other industries, and the attractions industry is particularly vulnerable, given its reliance on seasonal workers, low skilled labour, low wages, and on the seasonal and zero hour contracts which are the target for increasingly strict legislation.

Being in this poor labour position also has a real impact on the financial wellbeing of our theme parks and attractions. The 2020 IAAPA Theme and Amusement Parks Benchmark Report indicated that 37 per cent of total revenues go toward staffing costs and from what I hear, this percentage seems to be ever-increasing, putting immense pressure on performance and operations. Staff shortages have led to closed rides and F&B outlets and a decrease in visitor interaction, impacting guest satisfaction, as can be seen from reviews on Tripadvisor and the like.

Rising staffing costs means that operating margins are under increasing pressure in a market where all costs are rising and purchasing power is not, due to the cost of living crisis. Increasing admission prices in order to manage cost increases is unlikely to be the answer – for the majority of attractions and parks that’s simply impossible.

So what can we do?
These trends aren’t going away. Employee cost is based on the number of hours we need an employee to work, multiplied by the wage we pay per hour. We can’t (and shouldn’t) reduce the wage-per-hour. It then follows logically that we need to reduce the number of hours we need employees to work. But we need to do so without negatively impacting the guest experience and while creating enjoyable work year-round.

Can we think outside of the box and design parks that need fewer staff to operate them, yet still give guests an amazing experience? The industry attracts some of the most amazing designers, engineers and technologists – I’m confident the skills and brainpower exist to find a way out of this situation.

In my next article, I’ll take a look at what’s currently being done to address the staffing crisis creatively, and I’d love to hear from you if you’re working on an ingenious product, solution or project that’s tackling this issue head on or if your attraction or park has found really creative operational solutions.

Photo: Christopher Andreou

Margreet Papamichael is director of Clear Associates

Changing attitudes to work and an ageing population are affecting the industry Credit: Photo: Shutterstock/Ground Picture
Rising staff costs are putting operating margins under increasing pressure Credit: Photo: Shutterstock/ i-m-a-g-e
Can we design parks that require fewer staff, asks Papamichael Credit: Photo: Shutterstock/ Paii VeGa
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Attractions Management
2023 issue 4

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Leisure Management - We need a revolution

Opinion

We need a revolution


The industry is facing a staffing crisis and in a heartfelt plea to designers, Margreet Papamichael asks for radical solutions

Several macro trends are making it harder for operators to attract and retain staff Photo: Shutterstock/ Brocreative
Changing attitudes to work and an ageing population are affecting the industry Photo: Shutterstock/Ground Picture
Rising staff costs are putting operating margins under increasing pressure Photo: Shutterstock/ i-m-a-g-e
Can we design parks that require fewer staff, asks Papamichael Photo: Shutterstock/ Paii VeGa

The staffing crisis is a burning issue for our industry. Many parks are finding it difficult to staff up to the required level while using the flexible hourly model that’s traditionally been used and that allows operators to keep labour costs as low as possible. This issue has become so urgent that at times it has led to closures of attractions and F&B outlets.

I believe designers in our industry – including engineers and technologists – should lead the revolution to help us out of this painful problem.

Our industry needs to radically rethink design by modifying the design process so it starts by ensuring very little to no people power is required unless it significantly benefits the guest experience through amazing customer interaction.

I don’t know exactly what this might look like, but I’d love to find out. What I’m saying is – we need designers of all kinds to help us design attractions that are cheaper to operate by reducing the number of staff needed to do so.

BACKGROUND: Why are we in this situation?

1. Ageing population
A couple of macro trends have landed us here. We’re all aware of the fact that the populations in Western Europe and the US are ageing. Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are now aged between 58 and 76. With the average retirement age in the EU at 64.3 years for men and 63.5 years for women (slightly lower in the US), this group is slowly withdrawing from the working population.

The population group of 20- to 64-year-olds is set to reduce significantly over time, mainly caused by a steadily declining birth rate post WW2. This trend will only becoming more visible and immediate.

2. More time in education
Not only is the working population shrinking through ageing and a lower birth rate, children are also spending more time in education. The expectation is for this global trend to continue and to have an even greater impact in the future.

This means that over time, a larger proportion of people is entering the workforce at a later age, thereby ‘shrinking’ the available workforce further. This puts specific pressure on the number of young people entering the workforce, who often do so at entry level wages and with more flexible work hours – the people we often need to meet our seasonal staffing requirements.

Furthermore, people entering the workforce with a higher level of qualification look for secure employment that values those qualifications, thereby increasing salary expectations and expectations around meaningful, full-time, year-round work.

3. Fewer older workers
As we came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of talk about a decrease in older workers in the workforce. Data for this is hard to source, but the OECD provides data on employment rate by age group for 55-64 year olds. Data from five countries shows that the long-term trend prior to the pandemic was generally an increase in participation in the workforce of this age group, although it started to slide in the US prior to the pandemic.

The effect of the pandemic is clear to see in the US, where participation among this age group dropped dramatically. A downward effect was measured for all countries albeit to a lesser degree. Interestingly, of the five countries, only the UK is still significantly below pre-pandemic levels. The US is still slightly lower than pre-pandemic levels; having experienced the sharpest drop, it stands to reason that recovery of this may take longer in the US but it seems to be coming back to that pre-pandemic level.

In short, although the employment rate of older workers may have been impacted by the pandemic, it seems largely either to have recovered or to be still recovering. Perhaps other factors than the pandemic are also influencing the dip in employment rate for the UK?

4. The Great Resignation… or is it? 
There was much talk during and towards the end of the pandemic about a phenomenon dubbed the Great Resignation. Data on this is hard to find as most of the information seemed to come from informal surveys and most countries measure numbers of job vacancies rather than numbers of resignations.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does measure resignations, and Statista sourced figures on this. From 2001 they found that when there’s a recession, fewer people quit their job – no surprise there. The findings also show the impact of the pandemic in September 2021 when resignations dropped tremendously. The sharp uptake following that, in my opinion, doesn’t represent a new trend but rather a trend that has been rising since around 2009. This prompts two questions: What is causing the phenomenon, and what if another recession follows?

Causes include people retiring early taking advantage of relatively high real estate values in the US and a relatively upbeat stock market – this group was seen to ‘cash in’ and downsize. Taking that as read, this would logically be a blip in the statistics and will fade away over time.

Other workers cited a general discontent with their jobs, which has led to what’s been dubbed the Great Reshuffle – the phenomenon of an increase in people changing jobs that’s been seen widely throughout Western Europe and the US. Respondents to various surveys give a number of reasons for changing jobs, including low pay, job insecurity, a desire for a better work/life balance, better benefits and the wish for more meaningful work.

Many also found that working from home during the pandemic suited them better and have gone in search of jobs that allow this workstyle. This has obvious implications for the attractions industry – in the words of Ida Troive, HR director for Parks & Resorts Scandinavia, “You can’t serve candy floss from your home office.”

With the increase in vacancies offering very flexible options, many of these considerations that are encouraging people to change jobs are likely to stay.

What if another recession follows? A recession would likely dampen the trends mentioned but, given the more flexible job options that now exist, they’re unlikely to go away. That means that at the end of a (hopefully hypothetical) recession, these trends will reappear in redoubled strength.

What this means for the attractions industry
For the themed entertainment industry, these trends may have more of an impact than in other industries. Data from the US suggests that industries relying on low skilled customer-facing staff have higher attrition rates than other industries, and the attractions industry is particularly vulnerable, given its reliance on seasonal workers, low skilled labour, low wages, and on the seasonal and zero hour contracts which are the target for increasingly strict legislation.

Being in this poor labour position also has a real impact on the financial wellbeing of our theme parks and attractions. The 2020 IAAPA Theme and Amusement Parks Benchmark Report indicated that 37 per cent of total revenues go toward staffing costs and from what I hear, this percentage seems to be ever-increasing, putting immense pressure on performance and operations. Staff shortages have led to closed rides and F&B outlets and a decrease in visitor interaction, impacting guest satisfaction, as can be seen from reviews on Tripadvisor and the like.

Rising staffing costs means that operating margins are under increasing pressure in a market where all costs are rising and purchasing power is not, due to the cost of living crisis. Increasing admission prices in order to manage cost increases is unlikely to be the answer – for the majority of attractions and parks that’s simply impossible.

So what can we do?
These trends aren’t going away. Employee cost is based on the number of hours we need an employee to work, multiplied by the wage we pay per hour. We can’t (and shouldn’t) reduce the wage-per-hour. It then follows logically that we need to reduce the number of hours we need employees to work. But we need to do so without negatively impacting the guest experience and while creating enjoyable work year-round.

Can we think outside of the box and design parks that need fewer staff to operate them, yet still give guests an amazing experience? The industry attracts some of the most amazing designers, engineers and technologists – I’m confident the skills and brainpower exist to find a way out of this situation.

In my next article, I’ll take a look at what’s currently being done to address the staffing crisis creatively, and I’d love to hear from you if you’re working on an ingenious product, solution or project that’s tackling this issue head on or if your attraction or park has found really creative operational solutions.

Photo: Christopher Andreou

Margreet Papamichael is director of Clear Associates


Originally published in Attractions Management 2023 issue 4

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